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What Next For The Pakistani Taliban?

Commander Khan Said has been put forward as a possible new leader of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, but it's not clear he'll be able to bridge differences among factions.
The killing of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud not only presents the Waziristan-based militant group with a serious leadership crisis, but also casts a pall on much-anticipated peace talks with the government.

The 38-year-old Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike after TTP leaders had met at a mosque near Miranshah, the administrative headquarters of North Waziristan, to discuss the peace talks.

The strike came less than 24 hours after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who during the country's general elections in May pledged to find a way to end the government's conflict with the militants, said talks with the TTP leadership had been initiated.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, tasked by Sharif with carrying out the negotiations, quickly denounced the drone strike as an attempt to sabotage the peace process.

The Pakistani Foreign Office, too, condemned the attack, calling it a violation of the country's sovereignty. And opposition parties -- particularly the anti-U.S. and somewhat pro-Taliban Jamaat-e Islami (JI) and Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaaf (PTI) -- characterized the attack in official statements and talk-show appearances as foreign aggression.

With a new TTP leader about to enter the picture, the future of the government's much-sought-after talks is uncertain. Within hours a new name -- commander Khan Said, alias Uncle Sajna -- was being floated as the new head of the TTP. Khan Said's reported nomination was not immediately confirmed by the group, but of the handful of other potential replacements mentioned in the media, most did not belong to the powerful Mehsud tribe.

What Lies Ahead?

The killing of Hakimullah Mehsud is a serious blow to the TTP, which just months ago lost deputy commander Wali Rehman Mehsud under similar circumstances. Rehman Mehsud was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan in late May. Prior to that, high-profile militant leaders, including Maulvi Nazeer, Qari Zafar, Ilyas Kashmiri, Qari Hussain, and TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud, were killed in similar attacks.

A man in Peshawar on November 2 reads newspapers carrying front-page headlines of the death of Hakimullah Mehsud.
A man in Peshawar on November 2 reads newspapers carrying front-page headlines of the death of Hakimullah Mehsud.
Aside from the immediate task of choosing a new leader, the TTP must also find a way to maintain unity. The banned umbrella organization was already reportedly suffering from differences among its various groups and leaders.

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Conflict within the TTP was exposed after the killing of Baitullah Mehsud in a drone strike in August 2009.

It took the TTP several days to appoint a successor, and the discussions were heated. Shots were reportedly fired between supporters of Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali Rehman Mehsud, two potential successors, although the TTP later denied the reports.

The differences between the two subsided for a time after the TTP shura appointed Hakimullah Mehsud as the organization's head, with Wali Rehman Mehsud as his deputy.

But the rift was exposed again when, after Wali Rehman was killed in May, his followers appointed Khan Said to replace him without consulting the Taliban shura or Hakimullah Mehsud.

With Hakimullah Mehsud, who eventually was handed the TTP leadership, now dead, Khan Said's name has again surfaced as the TTP's chief. But even if he is confirmed as leader, the bad blood that was evident this spring -- after Khan Said's camp unilaterally named him Wali Rehman's replacement -- could emerge again. In May, Hakimullah Mehsud's supporters reportedly stayed silent to maintain unity within the TTP, but that might not be the case this time.

Leadership Crisis

As a close associate of TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud was respected among the TTP hierarchy. He had previously worked as chief of the Khyber and Orakzai tribal agency branches of the TTP and had gained a reputation for carrying out daring attacks against Pakistani security forces. Ambushes on NATO supply convoys in the Khyber tribal agency in 2008 and the burning of hundreds of NATO vehicles in Peshawar reportedly burnished his image among the TTP leadership.

When Hakimullah Mehsud was picked as the TTP chief, he attracted media attention because of his reputation as a fighter. However, his apparent successor, Khan Said, does not benefit from such notoriety. He also does not possess a school or madrasah education that could give him a boost in the eyes of the TTP rank-and-file.

Of the others who have been reported as potential successors, two stand out: Mullah Fazlullah, alias FM Mullah; and Abdul Wali, alias Omar Khalid Khurasani. They sit at the head of the TTP hierarchy, but their status as non-Mehsuds is a hurdle to their rise to the very top of the TTP leadership.

Mullah Fazlullah belongs to the Malakand region and once enjoyed a strong backing in Swat. Abdul Wali, meanwhile, has the upper parts of the Mohmand tribal agency as his base.

When TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike in 2009, the Taliban did not promote TTP deputy head Maulvi Faqir Muhammad as the organization's head, mainly because he was not from Waziristan, but from the Bajaur tribal agency. Such differences eventually led to Faqir Muhammad's unceremonious removal, even from his position as TTP deputy chief.

For the time being, Khan Said may be the only suitable choice to take over the reins of the TTP, even though his appointment could further deepen old rivalries -- or even lead to splinter groups within the TTP.

Political Implications

The Pakistani government, under pressure from its hard-line adversaries such as Jamat-e-Islami (JI) and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), had just launched a peace process with the Taliban to put an end to the bombing attacks on government as well as civilian installations.

In September, amid mounting Taliban attacks on civilians and suspected U.S. drone strikes, the government of Prime Minister Sharif came under growing pressure from political opponents to hold talks with the Taliban.

The government eventually agreed to go ahead with peace talks with the Taliban despite the latter's continued bombing campaign in and around the city of Peshawar.

Sources told Radio Mashaal that a 12-member delegation from the Pakistani government met with TTP representatives at a secret location on October 30, while another such meeting was set to be held on November 2. Those talks, however, have now been postponed indefinitely.

While the government of Prime Minister Sharif has reiterated its resolve in continuing the peace talks, the Taliban has yet to come out with a response -- whether it be peace or a ruthless bombing campaign to avenge Hakimullah Mehsud's killing.

By launching negotiations with the Taliban, the Sharif government had almost certainly deprived his pro-Taliban opposition from scoring points. But the November 1 drone strike has once again provided an opportunity for the JI and PTI to criticize Sharif and the United States.

Winning talks with the Taliban, stopping opponents from political scoring, and continuing good relations with the United States has put the newly elected Pakistani government in a Catch-22 situation. Finding a way out will take time and political acumen.